A Sexual-Harassment Scandal Hits Chinese Volleyball

For years, rumors have swirled that China’s young, diligent athletes were victims of sexual harassment (and worse). But the country’s vast sports bureaucracy has generally managed to escape large, public sexual-harassment scandals -- until Nov. 13.

That evening, Shanghai’s much-lauded women’s volleyball team, which includes three Chinese national team members, took on Tianjin’s team, a heated rival. The highly anticipated match resulted in a listless loss for Shanghai, leading some to wonder: What damped Shanghai’s competitive fires?

The answer came minutes after the match ended, via Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog. An anonymous, allegedly Beijing-based account registered to a user who goes by the handle “Speak Out 111” tweeted:

“Shanghai women’s volleyball players were in a collective trance and not themselves at all! On the night of November 9th, the coaches, who had previously used corporal punishment and fines, developed some new ideas. … They sexually harassed some team members in the name of helping players relax muscles during a massage. … After it happened, with competition as an excuse, the culprits were only required to write self-criticisms. Now the players all have to face them every day. The players were required to undergo conflict management training and told to keep this quiet.”

They were explosive allegations, packed with sex, abuse of power and official cover-ups. More interesting, still, was the source of the information: Whistle-blowers rarely emerge from China’s state-run bureaucracies. But if Speak Out 111 was telling the truth, he or she must have been something of an insider, close enough to know the terms of the punishment -- “self-criticism,” a written admission of guilt and wrong-doing -- that would have been decided by the Shanghai Sports Bureau.

Sports in China is a government business. Local federations and bureaus report to the national-level organization and share its goal: preparing Chinese athletes for international competitions, including the Olympics.

Like most of China’s athletes, the members of the volleyball league -- who range in age from early twenties to early thirties -- tend to come from underprivileged families and areas with limited educational and professional opportunities. Those few who are successful will eventually be rewarded with salaries and other financial benefits. Sports can be a way out, and thus China’s athletes are famous for bearing training and abuse that would probably deter athletes elsewhere.

Chinese are familiar with this system and –-- right or wrong –-- the athletes it produces are held in almost universally high-regard for their patriotic sacrifices. One consequence of the high-regard for China’s athletes is the low-regard for those who demean them. Speak Out 111’s Weibo account had fewer than two-dozen followers at the time of the shocking tweet, but the news it conveyed quickly went viral. (The tweet was later deleted. It’s unclear whether censors or Speak Out 111 did the erasing, but screen grabs proliferate.)

Nonetheless, even on rumor-loving Sina Weibo, allegations of sexual harassment aren’t given much credibility without at least some supporting evidence. That came in the form of a cryptic tweet posted by Ma Yunwen, a star with the Shanghai and national volleyball teams, one day earlier, on Nov. 12:

“It doesn’t matter if it’s our environment, the ecology, even human conduct, thoughts, actions, attitudes, the two words ‘being clean’ have already become distant from us, and nothing can be done about it. Tragic.”

Ma’s tweet doesn’t make much sense without the context of Speak Out 111’s tweet -- and only marginally more sense with it. Still, journalists and netizens were more than happy to connect her claim that the team –-- or some group -–- was no longer clean to the conduct of dirty old men (or bureaucrats). By the morning of Nov. 14, news of the alleged harassment had spread through Sina Weibo and into the mainstream media. Adding fuel to the rumors, Ma’s tweet soon disappeared, and she hasn’t tweeted or spoken of her message since.

The online furor quickly caught the attention of the Shanghai Sports Bureau which -- at 3:22 p.m. on Nov. 14 -- tweeted via its Sina Weibo account that it was investigating the microblogged rumors. The investigation didn’t take long: At 6:29 p.m. the bureau tweeted a link to its findings. According to the statement, the coach in question had spent the evening “socializing and drinking, and didn’t recall his words or deeds very well.” Too bad for him, however, because the city’s statement notes players distinctly recalled him using “inappropriate words and actions” during the subsequent drunken massage.

The Sports Bureau announced that the preliminary terms of the coach’s punishment would be a suspension (the length of which was not revealed), a self-criticism, and a requirement that he formally apologize to the players and their parents. If Speak Out 111 is to be believed, this response seems disingenuous at best. The whistle-blowing tweet indicated that the coach or coaches had already been punished. However, the release gave no indication that the Sports Bureau had prior knowledge of the events or the punishment.

Still, the bureau’s release might have been the end of the matter were it not for a basketball player on the Henan province professional team who took to Weibo on Nov. 15 to announce that his girlfriend -- a volleyball player on the Henan team -- had been harassed by a coach in a similar, drunken incident in October 2011. That tweet was deleted by the basketball player (who, apparently, thought twice about the attention it would draw to him), but enterprising microbloggers and reporters took notice and subsequently scoured the player’s tweets from 2011 to find that he had posted cryptic tweets at the time, which -- in light of his new tweet -- backed up his account. Late last week, inspired by the Shanghai and Henan tweets, a reporter with Chengdu Business Daily decided to investigate the 2011 incident. The basketball player confirmed the tweets and alleged events -- including that the official in question blamed his behavior on alcohol and, in part, on the fact that the players wore pajamas in his presence, and that his girlfriend had retired from the volleyball team in the aftermath of the incident, though the coach remained employed by it.

Chinese sports fans seem to have taken away two messages from the expanding controversy. First, sexual harassment of Chinese athletes by their government overseers is common. And second, it’s common because Chinese officials routinely harass their subordinates. On Nov. 16, Lin Xi, a Shanghai photojournalist, summed up these feelings in a tweet to the Ten Cent microblog, China’s second most popular Twitter-like service:

“Days ago, news came that Shanghai’s female volleyball players suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their coach. And today’s news is that the volleyball coach in Henan assaulted players when he was drunk. Actually, in contemporary mainland China, no matter the level of department or public institution, so long as there is a superior-subordinate relationship, this happens commonly. ... The reason is clearly that one’s power is too big, without supervision, and the oversight is out of control.”

Amid the accumulating evidence of sexual harassment in Chinese volleyball, the Shanghai Sports Bureau released a second statement on Nov. 16, again via Sina Weibo, announcing that the unnamed coach “is being removed from his position with an executive warning. The coach has to apologize to the players and their parents and will be transferred away from women’s volleyball.”

For those netizens interested in what China’s Legal Times called “the first instance of a sex harassment scandal in Chinese sports,” (in light of the Henan incident coming to light, an arguably incorrect label) the punishment was both unsurprising and unacceptable. Of course the Chinese bureaucracy would protect one of its own by moving him to another agency. That the supposed victims were national-grade athletes, groomed for patriotic duty, only seemed to heighten the online anger. A Sina Weibo microblogger in Guangzhou who uses the handle “tao91888,” summed up the displeasure in a comment posted directly below the Sport Bureau’s Nov. 16 statement:

“The grief of China’s daughters is punished so lightly! This is no joke! If just one of these victims was the daughter of an important leader, I think we can anticipate the result. Where are our police? Where is the rule of law?”

They are poignant questions, and ones that China’s sports bureaucrats are likely no more interested in answering than their counterparts in other agencies. But if further allegations of sexual harassment and wrongdoing emerge from China’s women’s volleyball leagues or other national sports institutes and leagues, it’s probable that the anger expressed on behalf of “China’s daughters” will only grow, necessitating something more than job transfers. Sports, as many an observer has noted, is a metaphor for life, and over the last two weeks, that’s never been more true than in China.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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